March 31, 2020 · not software engineering

On Being In The Age Of Coronavirus

Over the past couple of months, humanity's collective story has changed. We're going through something big, something we weren't prepared for and with limited medical supplies and no vaccines the only weapon many of us have is to isolate. How do we adjust to this new normal?

This post, like everything I write here, is mostly for me. This is me trying to suss out how I can walk a virtuous path during a weird and scary time. I hope there's something valuable in here for someone else but if not, that's OK too. All of our situations are different and personally I'm pretty lucky. Still, I've got a lot to figure out.

On Reaction

“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them” – Epictetus

Epictetus is one of the big wig names in the Stoic philosophical canon. He taught that whatever happens in the world outside of our own consciousness, we've got no control over it. So, instead of focusing on the uncontrollable we should focus on what we've got power over, our inner selves.

When we lash out at the driver who cut us off, kick the vending machine that stole our quarters or snap at a loved one for some perceived slight against us we're giving in to the rule of our own unbridled emotions. Emotions that pretty much universally don't help the situation.

For better or worse this pandemic has forced us to contend with how we react to adversity. We may feel fear for our aging parents, anxiety over the uncertain timeframe or doubt that the economy will recover. These feelings are natural but reacting with virtue is all most of us have and you'd be surprised how powerful it can be.

Let us react with care. The world will be better for it.

On Compassion

"Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike." – Albus Dumbledore

There's a lot of conversation right now about how we're collectively over-reacting to this pandemic. As of this writing we're being told that COVID-19 kills around 1% of the people it infects. That 1% is made up mostly of aging people or those who have other serious health conditions already.

Tens of thousands of people die from the flu every year. Millions die from car accidents or tobacco and alcohol. Why is this Coronavirus thing a big deal? At worst, 99% of us are going to live and the people it disproportionately affects probably weren't going to be around much longer anyway, right?

The argument is wrong for about a thousand reasons but I do understand how easily one can succumb to it, especially when we don't personally know those affected. Perhaps the most important implication of this broken logic is that we should care more about the tragedies of every day life, not less about the tragedy of Coronavirus.

We have a great opportunity here to level up our empathetic awareness. If you're my age, you likely have a mother and/or a father who is among those highly susceptible to COVID-19. Think of them. Think about the fear your distant but diabetic relative must be feeling right now. Imagine how the doctor feels going home to her still healthy family every night after caring for sick patients all day.

The numbers we see on TV aren't just numbers. Those are people and they deserve our care, kindness and understanding. There's no such thing as too much compassion so let's be there for our fellow humans.

On Solitude

“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion." – Albert Camus

In this unprecedented moment, many of us are facing an existential crisis of forced solitude, possibly for the first time ever. Being alone with our thoughts for long periods of time can be frightening. Modern society itself seems designed to keep us from experiencing even a hint of boredom or pure stillness.

What do we do when, over night, all social obligations have evaporated? When we have no day job to occupy our mind? When we can no longer kill time with friends in bars and restaurants? When all the day to day noise that we thought was so important is suddenly stripped away?

Solitude often carries the weight of fear and anxiety. But, it's not like these fears didn't exist before, we just buried them under our calendars. Time alone is a gift and many of us have more of it than ever. We have an opportunity to pause and reflect, to face our fears with resolute courage, to ask ourselves tough questions and come out the other side better for it all.

Sure, technology affords unlimited ways to remain connected and we've got more than enough entertainment to last a lifetime's worth of pandemics. Maybe though, we can use some of this newfound solitude to slow down and simply exist with ourselves, warts and all.

Let's stare down a few of those demons we've spent our lives outrunning. Maybe we'll learn a thing or two.

On Mental Toughness

"We love being mentally strong, but we hate situations that allow us to put our mental strength to good use." – Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Let's face it, this situation sucks. We are vulnerable, isolated and uncertain of the future. We've seen our nest eggs tank by 30% in a massive and totally unexpected stock market crash. Many of us are out of work and, worst of all, some of us are dying from this thing. It would be easy, understandable even, to despair.

This pandemic is a world-wide test of our collective mental fortitude. The people holding society together while this mess runs it's course, the doctors, nurses, first-responders etc, who are taking the brunt of this, they are the epitome of mental toughness and we could stand to learn from them.

Collectively keeping it together is going to be necessary to bounce back from this thing stronger and wiser than ever and we need to do our part, if not for ourselves then for those around us.

Let's take this opportunity to exercise the mental toughness we've already got and to further "callus our minds" as modern day philospher/super intense dude, David Goggins says.

On Heroics

"I am of certain convinced that the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel."  – Florence Nightingale
"It's not just children who need heroes." – Tamora Pierce

Right now health workers are risking their lives every day to protect the rest of us. Companies are re-tooling to make products they never planned for (ventilators, hand sanitizer, etc). Meals on Wheels is still driving. Men and women continue to show up to work keeping the lights on, the water running, the trash cleared and food on the shelves.

To all of you, thank you! You are heroes and without you this whole thing would be unfathomably worse.

To the rest of us, we still have an opportunity. Simple acts are heroic given the right context. Even if all you can do (all most of us can do) is stay home, doing so despite our own isolation and all of our fears and anxieties surrounding it takes courage.

The world needs many things right now, some big, some small, let's do our part.


And with that, here's a few random things I've enjoyed or learned from in this weird time.

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